Heracles: Birth and Early Life


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Birth and early life

Heracles’ parents

Heracles was born in the city of Thebes, the son of Zeus and a mortal woman, Alcmene, the wife of Amphitryon. Heracles and IphiclesZeus impregnated Alcmene while Amphitryon was away fighting. When Amphitryon returned, he also impregnated Alcmene, who then gave birth to twins – Heracles from the seed of Zeus and Iphicles by Amphitryon.

Zeus deceived

Just before Heracles was due to be born, Zeus boasted that the next male baby descended from him would hold power over all his neighbours. Hera, not wanting one of Zeus’ bastard children to gain so much power, instructed the goddess of midwifery, Ilithyia, to delay the birth of Heracles. At the same time, Hera induced the birth of another descendant of Zeus, Eurystheus, the son of Sthenelus of Mycenae. Sthenelus’ wife was only seven months pregnant with Eurystheus, but thanks to Hera’s plan he was born before Heracles and became the king of both Mycenae and Tiryns.

Hera’s hatred

Although Zeus had many affairs which produced children, Hera was particularly hateful towards Heracles. After Eurystheus was born, she told Ilithyia to keep delaying Heracles’ birth until he died. Ilithyia could not bring herself to follow Hera’s instructions and finally allowed Alcmene to bear Heracles.

Heracles as a boy strangling a snake (marble, Roman artwork, 2nd century CE)Once, when the baby Heracles was in his cradle, Hera sent two serpents to kill him. However, Heracles already had immense strength and, while Iphicles was terrified, Heracles was found holding the snakes in his hands, as if they were toys.

Efforts were made to lessen Hera’s anger towards Heracles – even his name (which means “Glory of Hera”) was an attempt to make her more warm to him. But these efforts came to nothing, and Hera hounded Heracles his whole life.